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West Malaysia                                                                                Next >>
May 2009
a private small group trip organised and led by Adrian Hoskins

Sungai Tahan river, Taman Negara  Adrian Hoskins

We spent our second week based at Kuala Tahan in Taman Negara national park. The 4 hour drive from Kuala Lumpur provided ample evidence of the affluence of the country, with hundreds of miles of new roads, and new urban and industrial developments under construction everywhere. Much of the country's wealth comes from it's oil palm industry, and sadly this has had a very detrimental effect on the environment, not only in Malaysia itself, but also in Africa and South America where Malaysian corporations are buying up vast quantities of land for oil palm production. 50 years ago the lowlands of Malaysia were largely covered in rainforest, but oil palms now reach as far as the eye can see in every direction. The result is that a sq kilometre of land that may previously have supported as many as 400 butterfly species is now only capable of supporting a dozen. Nowhere is this more noticeable than at Kuala Tahan, where land on one side of the Sungai Tembeling river is severely degraded, while the other side is covered in the pristine rainforest of Taman Negara.

We arrived mid afternoon and walked a couple of trails close to park HQ. In light gaps we found the exquisite long-tailed hairstreaks Drupadia ravindra and Zeltus amasa, along with 2 or 3 unidentified Arhopala Oakblues, and the purple-winged Terinos clarissa. Just before dusk the Allotinus Darkies became active, the males taking up perching positions on low plants from which they fly up to intercept passing females. These butterflies although not especially attractive have a fascinating biology - the larvae are carnivorous, feeding on aphids, coccids and membracids; and the adult butterflies feed in the company of ants, on sugary secretions which the ants milk from aphids.

Sungai Tahan river, Taman Negara  Adrian Hoskins

Finding butterflies on the trails is hard work. For most of the morning they fly high in the forest canopy, and most species only descend to the understorey in early afternoon. Even then they are usually seen as singletons, often just a fleeting glimpse as they settle momentarily on a leaf. The jungle is immense. It can take over a week to cover some of the longer trails. It is oppressively hot and extremely humid - so much so that camera lenses and spectacles mist up within seconds, and you are drenched in sweat within minutes of setting out.

Photographing butterflies in these circumstances is to say the least, challenging. Patience and dedication are essential, as is a sense of humour - on many occasions we tripped over tree roots and crashed into the undergrowth, no doubt causing amusement to the onlooking butterflies. On one occasion when crossing a rickety bridge I became so distracted by a passing Birdwing that I put my foot through a broken slat and fell through into a river. Luckily I managed to avoid broken bones, and somehow held on to my camera, which survived the ordeal intact.

Although there are risks on the trails, and certainly more than a little discomfort, the rewards are great - in addition to a large number of butterfly species we also saw leaf monkeys, langurs, squirrels, wild pigs, sambar and barking deer, monitor lizards, iguanas, flying lizards, several snakes, fish eagles, kingfishers, giant millipedes, katydids, stick insects, bright red dragonflies, and myriads of ants and termites.

On some occasions we took the opportunity to explore the tributaries of the Sungai Tembeling by motorised longboats. These 4 seaters can seem a little unstable as you clamber on board, but the boatmen are highly skilled at navigating the shallow streams and small rapids, and once you are on the move there is little danger of overturning. The odd splash is inevitable however so it pays to have a waterproof bag to protect cameras and binoculars.

forest bordering Sungai Tahan river, Taman Negara  Adrian Hoskins

The short trip along the Sungai Tahan is one of the most beautiful river journeys in the world. The banks of the shallow blackwater stream are lined with giant Neram trees leaning far out over the water. Dappled sunlight filters through the foliage, dazzling blue and orange kingfishers dart across your path, brilliant metallic green damselflies dance over the water, and every now and then you glimpse a deer on the river bank, or a giant water monitor lizard basking on a half-immersed log.

After about 40 minutes the boat reaches the rapids at Lata Berkoh and can go no further. There, on the rocky beach are hordes of beautiful Graphium sarpedon swarming in groups of 20-30 to imbibe mineralised moisture. They have chocolate wings with translucent turquoise 'windows', and look like flotillas of miniature sailboards. The Five-bar Swordtail Pathysa antiphates is an even more stunning Lata Berkoh species with white wings that are marked underneath with bright green and orange.

Other species seen at Lata Berkoh included several yellow Pierids such as Dercas verhuelli, Catopsilia pyranthe and Eurema simulatrix. To my eyes the most delightful species were probably the lightning fast Dragontails which buzzed around the waters edge. These miniature relatives of the Swallowtails have transparent wings banded with black and white, and have incredibly long rudder-like tails. There are 2 species - Lamproptera curius and L. meges - the former appears whitish in flight, while the latter has a distinctive greenish appearance.

To summarise, our trip to West Malaysia was great fun, and enabled us to record and photograph over 170 species of butterfly. It's difficult to pick a "butterfly of the trip", simply because the variety of shapes, colours and patterns was so vast - how can you choose between the huge and incredibly beautiful Rajah Brooke's Birdwing, and the fragile multi-tailed hairstreaks such as Eooxylides tharis or Drupadia ravindra ?

We hope to organise another trip to this fascinating destination soon !

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